Book excerpt: Skills coach Darryl Belfry on finding the right drill for elite talent

Belfry Hockey

This excerpt from Belfry Hockey: Strategies to Teach the World’s Best Athletes by Darryl Belfry with Scott Powers is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, or www.triumphbooks.com/BelfryHockey. 

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The last five or six years, I started really moving through the teaching roles. I really felt like that was a critical component. At first you’re the director, then you’re the collaborator, then the facilitator, and, ultimately, the co-teacher. I wanted to set up my drills to mirror these teaching roles. I was progressing the kids not only through the content, but through the relationship with me and their reliance on me as the teacher. We’d gradually move toward teaching each other. That’s ultimately where I want to end up on different skills. The next parallel I was always trying to match was that the drill structure had to have a lot of variability and a lot of opportunity for me to be able to pivot for different reasons. 

To start off, everything was way easier for me when I understood game situations. That was the best part of Brantford, because whenever I would ask the coach what his challenges were and what the team was doing well, he would always relate it to the game. In these games, our kids don’t protect the puck well enough, so we’re on defense all the time or we get into good areas and our kids just don’t shoot the puck well enough. It takes us a lot of time to score. What do you got for scoring, Darryl? We have a hard time getting out of our own end. We get pinned in. We’re very susceptible to an aggressive pinch. We can’t problem-solve the pinch. Our wingers just aren’t strong enough. What can we do with that off the forecheck? We pride ourselves on having a strong retrieval game, and we don’t forecheck. We don’t get in on it fast enough, our support is too late. F2 is nowhere to be found even if we do get the puck stop. We’re susceptible to a team that that uses their D partners. Whenever they go D to D, we really struggle with rotation. We need to work on rotations. These were all the variables that could happen in just one night. 

I was always trying to figure out, Well, what is this game situation, what would that look like at this particular level, where else could this type of thing be used? If it’s puck protection, we could do that everywhere. I could do that in the defensive zone, in the neutral zone, in the offensive zone, off the rush, in small space. There are lots of things I could do with that. Then I could start to pinpoint the undercurrents here. What’s the underlying message that we want the coaches talking about? Forechecking, well, the premise behind forechecking is pursuit and angle, so we’re going to focus on those two things. That’s going to be an undercurrent. That’s going to run all the way through. Puck protection, well, that’s body position and puck placement, so that’s important. A little bit of awareness, maybe some reverse hits, we could put all that into it. The team doesn’t pass well enough, so there’s timing, puck support, passing technique. We can have that as the undercurrent. There’s also pass receiving. Maybe the passer is okay, but the pass receiver doesn’t take good angles to support the puck or doesn’t understand the casting component of being able to use their stick to soften the catch. Maybe there’s just a whole availability situation in that the younger they are, the less understanding of movement off the puck they have. Maybe there’s a real value in what we could do off the puck. 

Then, what are the key details? I understand the skills I want to do, but what are the details inside of it? What about angling? Well, there’s stick position, there’s the actual angle that we take. How can we elongate the contact opportunity here? What can we do with our stick? What can we do on the takeaway? What are the details with this whether we stick lift or stick slap or stick press? How are we doing this takeaway? What are the escape routes inside of that? Maybe there are two people coming; what’s the interaction between those two? How are they reading off of each other? Is there a way to simplify it? Could we go old-school where you have the rabbit, the hound, and the fox? The rabbit is the guy with the puck who’s trying to get away, the hound’s pressuring, and the fox is reading the play and trying to anticipate and time his support. Is there a way to articulate the rules to these players in a way they can understand? What are the details? How can I communicate those details? 

When I was in Brantford, I never got into parallel structures. I wasn’t that far in my personal development. It hadn’t revealed itself to me up to that point. It was a big enough bite just to understand how to set up and run the sheet and be able to hit the target areas and still pass the sweat test. Later on, I started understanding parallel structures and that became a big part of some of the questions. Like, can I do two things at once? Do I need to run them opposite of each other, or can I run them together where it’s a sequence and we’re building two different things, but they’re expressed together with good shouldering? Where could I build the peaks? 

Sometimes I did go on drill runs where I’d have three or four drills. Usually the coach would ask for two different things, so I would teach two different things. It was rare for those things to go hand-in-hand. It was usually like, We struggle on the breakout and we have problems on the penalty kill, so I would be doing things that were breakout-oriented for a drill run and then we would pivot and work on the penalty kill concepts. But how do I build the peaks? I needed to have the energy spike at different times to keep things hopping and popping for a little bit, at least, without getting so slow where it’s too teaching-oriented and the kids leave the ice without passing the sweat test. Now everybody is unhappy.

Darryl Belfry

I also had to determine who the top players were. This was something I carried over from my Nathan Horton days, understanding who the top player is and what top players’ assets are. Is it just one guy, or could it be two or three? What are their assets? That would allow me to understand which kid we could start zeroing in on to push the whole thing along. Then, ultimately, I focused on relationship building, making it fun and creating a real connection inside the teaching, where I was relied upon. 

In the early days, I wanted to be relied upon. I wanted all eyes on me. I wanted the respect from the group, from the coach. I wanted him to respect what I was doing and be like, “Wow, that was awesome.” I needed all of those kind of affirmations. That was all relationship building and how I was moving the group through and what kind of a handle the coach had on his own group. Whenever I was there, I wanted to be the best ice they had. It had to be significantly better than what the coach was capable of doing on his own, which was tough, because there were some outstanding coaches who had been coaching for years and years and knew what they were doing. So whenever I came out there, it was a little intimidating, because I didn’t have the same kind of experience that way. I knew how to teach, but I needed to be able to make an impact and have the coach’s takeaway be that having me there was worthwhile. 

The drill formats were a live document for me. I kept adding new formats as I started to understand them and started to mess around with them and use them for different purposes. But it really starts with an isolation. That’s the very first thing. Which drill formats can I use to create an isolation? We used to use the continuous butterfly drill format a lot for edge control and all the skating components, as a warmup of sorts. You’d start with the kids going from basically top of the circle to top of the circle, down the middle of the ice, and executing something. It could be the inside edge with a puck. Then they’d make the turn, either direction at the top of the circles, and come back down the boards or the outside. Then you’d have another skill, so maybe it would be inside edge on the way down and outside edge on the way back. Then they’d make the turn at the bottom and come back down the middle, so the way the ice is moving looks like a butterfly. There might be some spacing problems because kids aren’t moving at the same speed, so there’s some trying to navigate out of the way. Once you understood the group or the group undersood you, you could pivot. As they’re going, you could be just shouting the next thing. You could let them go for two or three reps doing outside edges, long strides, some crossover or overspeed work, and then switch to going backward. You could just be standing there telling them what to do. You could add pucks, you could add passing; there are tons of things you can do. I used to love that format, because again I felt like it had a lot of variability. I could do different things with it. I could slow it down. I could speed it up. I could isolate. I could teach from it. 

The end zone line, for us, was a straight power skating format. Depending on how many kids they had on the ice, they would try to have groups of four or five lines, and four or five kids in a line, so 20 kids total. If you had more kids, you had to add more lines. Now you’ve got six or seven lines across the goal line and you’re just progressing straight down the ice doing certain isolated movements. I remember watching power skating situations where they would stay in that line format the whole time. It was literally a whole hour of just going down the ice doing one thing, getting some corrections, and coming back down the ice doing another. Their entire ice sheet would be worked off of those lines. It was very controlled. You could see everything going on. You could move the best kids to the front of the line. It really was a simple format that was good for isolations, whether it was starting kids in the corner and using the icing line and then maybe the blue line in their end. You have two groups. One’s in one end and one corner, one’s in the other end and the opposite corner. They go across the goal line, up the boards, back across the blue line, and back in line, working in a square. You could also do all the lines. They go up across the goal line, cross the ringette line. We have the ringette line in a lot of Canadian rinks, so it’s a good line to be able to use for teaching blue line, red line, blue line, ringette line, icing line. I’ve also used the dot lines both across the ice and down the ice, but those are good isolation formats where you can run a lot of kids through in a short period of time and you can isolate whatever skill set you want to work on. 

Then you have pair skills. I liked to use pairs to start getting the work-to-rest ratio going. Sometimes you have a group of 20 kids on the ice, 10 in one line, 10 in the other. By the time it accordions around the rink, the kids are standing in line a whole lot. Even though you can get a lot of kids moving, there’s still a lot of time in between as they wait for that centipede to come back to the end. So I have found using pairs is a better way to create high reps; I go, you wait, then you go, I wait, and we’re doing different things, which could also add a bit more skill blending. 

I used to do a lot of catch-and-turn stuff where there were some techniques I really wanted to work on the turn. I would do it off the pass. I could also do it through puck protection setup. Pairs were a really good format, and I could use multiple skills in a sequence. I could have partners go, and I could tell them, “You’re going to do three skills. You’re going to start off with one skill. When I blow the whistle, you move to the next skill. When I blow the whistle, you move to the next skill, and then you switch roles.” If I had multiple things I wanted to work on that were components of what we were doing that day, I knew I could go to this pair and knock them all off in a very short period of time with a high rep rate. I could see which the weakest one was and then isolate that, if I wanted to, and put it into a line or an end zone line or something. By isolating it, I could make sure that we did the extra work on it and then move on to the next thing. That’s what I mean about the corrective value of it. You could use a drill format just to evaluate where the skill is at before you pull it back into isolation to work on it, build it back up again, and you plug it back into the overall structure of what you’re working on. If you had like a small group, this would be like the role rotations we went over.

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    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

    NEW COACHES

    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

    CAMP TRYOUTS

    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

    EARLY START

    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

    Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

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    CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

    He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

    And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

    “The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

    With that, Barkov was sold.

    And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

    “We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

    Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

    He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

    “The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

    As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

    “I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

    BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

    Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

    He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

    “I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

    CAMP ROSTER

    Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.

    Coyotes sign Barrett Hayton right before training camp

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    SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes signed forward Barrett Hayton to a two-year contract right before the start of training camp.

    Terms of the deal were not released.

    The 22-year-old Hayton was a restricted free agent and not initially listed on Arizona’s roster for camp.

    Hayton had 10 goals and 14 assists in 60 games with the Coyotes last season, all career highs.

    Arizona drafted the Peterborough, Ontario native with the fifth overall pick of the 2018 NHL draft. He has 13 goals and 18 assists in 94 career games with the Coyotes.